The Watch List 2021: Championship Game Preview

Updated: January 10th 2021

Welcome to The Watch List for the 2021 NFL Draft season, a resource to help RSO owners identify the players from the college game that deserve your attention.  To view my observations, follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper.  Check back throughout the season as The Watch List will preview the prospects you should be watching each week so you know who will be fantasy relevant and worth your valuable draft capital.

Well, we made it. The 2020 college football season was an interesting ride from start to finish, full of unexpected hurdles and plenty of last minute gameplan changes. It’s fun to debate the merits of a 4-team playoff but I think it’s fair to say that we got two deserving teams in the championship. Alabama, as usual, stood out among the SEC and added another chapter to the story of Nick Saban’s dynasty. Ohio State, controversially, has played half as many games as Alabama but proved they belong with a convincing win against Clemson in the semi-finals. Both teams are loaded with NFL talent on both sides of the ball. As is my custom on The Watch List, below I am sharing the draft-eligible offensive skill position players you should be keeping an eye on in the game. Much of these players are “name brand” guys so I have also included a few under the radar honorable mentions at the end. (In true 2020 style I’ll share a familiar caveat: it’s possible that players mentioned in this preview are ruled out of the game for covid-related reasons between writing and publication.)

Mac Jones, QB, Alabama

Mac Jones started the 2020 season mostly as an unknown quantity to fans like myself. He played well enough in relief of Tua Tagovailoa in 2019, but it was a small-ish sample size and he lacked the recruiting pedigree of typical Alabama stars. So, it was fair to question whether he could lead the Tide to greatness. Jones put the questions to rest quickly after a second game statement win over Texas A&M. He ultimately ended with 4,036 passing yards and 36 TDs to just 4 INTs. Jones came in third in Heisman voting but received the consolation prize of seeing his favorite target, DeVonta Smith, win the trophy. Jones reads the field well and throws a tremendous deep ball that is accurate and perfectly placed. If he comes out he’ll probably end up being a late first rounder but another season on campus might elevate him even higher.

Najee Harris, RB, Alabama

For non-superflex leagues, Najee Harris has made the best case this season for the 1.01 pick. Harris is a bear to bring down, fully utilizing his 6020/230 build in goal line and short yardage situations. Harris led the nation in rushing touchdowns this season (24) and was near the top in attempts (229) and yards (1,387); he is also a big part of the passing game (36-346-3). Based on his size and his dominant performance this season, it’s easy to compare Harris to former Alabama star Derrick Henry but Harris is a more balanced back than Henry. I have a years-long love of Clemson’s Travis Etienne but even I need to admit that it may be time to put Harris atop the 2020 running back class. Ohio State had the nation’s second-best rushing defense (just 89.0 yards per game) so we’ll get a great showcase game for Harris to end on.

DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama

DeVonta Smith racked up the end-of-season accolades: SEC Offensive Player of the Year, AP Player of the Year, Biletnikoff Award, Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Award, Heisman Trophy, etc. Let me be the first last to tell you that DeVonta Smith is good. Smith is an innate route runner, he has great body control at the boundary, and he is quick and shifty after the catch. If Smith was twenty pounds heavier, he would probably be the highest rated receiver prospect in a decade. The biggest question about Smith is whether his size (6010/175) will reduce his impact in the NFL. #DraftTwitter is full of hot takes but I won’t add to them because Smith has been dominant for 2+ years and has never missed a game in college. Until he proves otherwise, Smith is my WR1 over LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase who sat out this season. We should relish the chance to watch DeVonta Smith in crimson one last time.

Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama

When I started writing this preview I did not include Waddle on my list because I didn’t think there was any shot he would play after suffering a fractured ankle earlier in the season. As of Sunday morning, word is that he may play though so he’s a necessary inclusion on this list. If Waddle does see the field it might only take one touch for him to make a difference. Waddle is the ultimate low-volume, high-impact player. For his career he averages just 4.75 touches per game (receptions, rushing attempts and returns) but an impressive 88.75 all-purpose yards per game. Like Smith, Waddle is undersized at 5100/180 but he’s a dynamo when he has the ball in his hands. He’s a true track star in football pads. Speed sells in the NFL and as such I expect Waddle to be a late first rounder at worst come April. If Waddle is able to play and prove he’s fully healthy it will only further improve his draft stock.

Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State

Whether he’s drafted 2nd or 3rd overall on April 29th, the team that drafts Justin Fields will be getting a cornerstone for their franchise for years to come. Fields is still my QB2 in this class and the toughness he showed in the semi-final against Clemson only solidified that for me. Sure, the six passing touchdowns were gaudy but it’s not the first time this season that he’s put up eye-popping numbers. In just seven games, Fields has scored 26 total TDs. Fields is listed at 6030/228 but looks even bigger than that on the screen. He’s a smart runner, reads the zone-read well and is a leader on and off the field. I love watching him sling it and that’s tough to admit as a lifelong Michigan fan.

Trey Sermon, RB, Ohio State

Leading into the 2019 season I was high on Trey Sermon. I thought he was the better of the two backs for the Sooners, over Kennedy Brooks, but he found himself on the wrong side of the time share. Sermon moved to Ohio State as a grad transfer for this season and now that he’s more comfortable in the offense he’s excelled. In the last three games against Michigan State, Northwestern and Clemson, Sermon has compiled 636 rushing yards and 4 TDs. His 331 yards against Northwestern were the second-most in a single game this year in the FBS. Sermon is a bit lanky at 6010/215 so he may not have the prototypical dimensions for a three down back in the NFL but I don’t think that will be his role. I believe Sermon can be a successful change of pace back in a zone running scheme where he can use his first-step quickness to get upfield. In past studies, I thought Sermon could also be a decent pass protector and pass catcher too. Sermon’s year-one role may only translate to a late round rookie draft flyer but I’d be interested in taking the chance because I think Sermon is better than he’s ever gotten credit for.

Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State

Between Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, Justin Fields has a powerful one-two punch at receiver. Wilson, a sophomore, isn’t draft eligible yet so we’ll focus on Olave here. Olave is a crafty route runner who inevitably finds a way to get open for his quarterback. He’s not really a yards-after-catch threat but that doesn’t matter if he catches it on the run with his straight line speed. I noticed that Olave seems to modulate his momentum well as he tracks a deep ball, allowing him to slow down and get under the ball to catch it in stride. Receivers will often outrun the ball and then come back to it, but Olave manages to catch most of his deep balls while still moving forward which translates to more touchdowns. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed that by a receiver and am now excited to watch that closely during the championship game. Olave is just a junior so we don’t know yet if he’ll declare early but if he comes out ESPN’s Todd McShay predicts he’ll be a first rounder.

Jeremy Ruckert, TE, Ohio State

I recently wrote about Jeremy Ruckert in my TE tiers article and described him as underused in the Buckeyes attack. Between drafting that sentiment and publishing my article, Ruckert went out and scored twice against Clemson in the semi-finals. He’s undoubtedly a block-first tight end but he does have a knack for the red zone. I foresee Ruckert getting drafted ahead of some recognizable pass-catching tight end names because he will have an instant impact as a blocker.

Honorable Mentions

  • Brian Robinson, RB, Alabama: Robinson has been a four-year contributor for the Tide who should get a look in the NFL. He’s been in Harris’ shadow this season but shined when given the chance against Arkansas with 17 touches for 76 yards and 3 TDs. I profiled Robinson heading into the season and wondered if he could have a Josh Jacobs-esque rise after being a bit player for three years.
  • Miller Forristall, TE, Alabama: I hear Brad Nessler saying “Miller Forristall” in my dreams. It feels like he’s been around forever (actually, just since 2016) and yet had his best season in 2020 with 23 grabs for 253 yards. About half of his production has come in the last three gotta-have-them games so I’m thinking he’ll figure in this one too. Forristall may not have the fantasy upside as recent ‘Bama tight ends like OJ Howard or Irv Smith but he’ll be playing on Sundays.
  • Master Teague, RB, Ohio State: Master Teague, all All-Name Team nominee, started the season as the Buckeyes’ bellcow. Teague racked up 380 yards and 6 TDs in the first four games. He got hurt in the Big Ten Championship game trying to hurdle a defender and it’s unclear if he’ll suit up for this one. Teague is a former 4-star recruit with a bowling ball body at 5110/225. He’s a straight ahead runner who pairs well with the aforementioned Trey Sermon. If he goes pro I would expect Teague to get some attention as an early down runner.

 

Notes: Heights listed are using a notation common among scouts where the first digit corresponds to the feet, the next two digits correspond to the inches and the fourth digit corresponds to the fraction, in eighths.  So, somebody measuring 5’11” and 3/8 would be 5113.  This is helpful when trying to sort players by height. Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  There are a lot of analysts out there who have a deeper depth of knowledge about certain players but I pride myself in a wide breadth of knowledge about many players.  When researching my articles I use a number of valuable resources. I would recommend bookmarking the below sites:

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, pro-football-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, mcubed.net, expandtheboxscore.com, washingtonpost.com
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2021 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, youtube.com
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, thedraftnetwork.com, nfl.com, nflmockdraftdatabase.com
  • NFL rosters, depth charts and contract info: ourlads.com, spotrac.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com, mockdraftable.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s, Athlon Sports
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft, Cover 3 College Football
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com
  • Odds & Gambling Stats: vegasinsider.com

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  He is a proud member of the Football Writers Association of America and the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.  Robert works as a certified park and recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper

The Watch List 2021: Week 4 Preview

Updated: September 25th 2020

Welcome to The Watch List for the 2021 NFL Draft season, a resource to help RSO owners identify the players from the college game that deserve your attention.  To view my observations, follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper.  Check back throughout the season as The Watch List will preview the prospects you should be watching each week so you know who will be fantasy relevant and worth your valuable draft capital.

The SEC is back! College football has certainly felt different so far this season but I think this week will be the first that feels “normal” because we can get lost in some matchups from the Southeastern Conference. We only get one Top 25 matchup this week from the SEC (Kentucky at Auburn) but no matter, the games will be fun to watch. To help you plan your schedule on Saturday, I am going to present you the best SEC game to watch in each broadcast window to maximize your prospect viewing pleasure.

12:00pm | Kentucky at Auburn

The SEC season kicks off with the league’s only Top 25 matchup of the day: Kentucky at Auburn. If I’m being honest, Auburn is the reason to watch this one. Kentucky may end up having a solid season but they are ranked 23rd simply because 40% of the Power 5 are not playing (yet). Before we get into Auburn, I will share one future NFL name from the Wildcats: Punter Max Duffy. Duffy won the Ray Guy award in 2019 after leading the NCAA in average yards per punt (48.1). If you’re recording the game to watch later, hit play when you see Duffy trot onto the field. You might get to see the NFL’s next best field-flipper in action, but it also means that Bo Nix and the Auburn offense are coming back onto the field.

Bo Nix isn’t yet draft eligible but he’s a name you should know because he’s likely to build on a solid true freshman season and make a case as a 2022 first rounder. He had 23 total TDs but was inefficient at times, especially in big games against Oregon, Florida and Alabama. The Tigers did pull out the victory over Alabama, but it was more in spite of Nix than thanks to him. Nix has plenty of room to grow and I suspect he will.

His top target from 2019, Seth Williams, is back for his junior season. A lanky outside receiver, Williams, put up a 59-830-8 line last year. He played a smaller role in 2018 as a freshman but managed a 20.5 yards per catch average and 5 TDs on just 26 receptions. I watched Williams tape from the 2019 LSU matchup. I was nonplussed for the first 57 minutes of the game before he finally flashed his potential. On those late snaps, I finally saw Williams use his 6030/211 size to his advantage. He isn’t the strongest receiver prospect but on those key plays he used his length and leverage to make plays. The capper of the drive was a too-little-too-late score from five yards out. He jab steps outside, knocks the corner’s hands off him, and then leans into his slant route to use his body to protect the incoming ball. Youtube clips show how well Williams does in the air, especially at the boundary or the back of the end zone. Maybe it’s because he too went to Auburn and I just saw him on Monday Night Football, but my mind went to Darius Slayton while watching Williams’ highlight reels.

Tune into this one for the Nix-Williams connection and hope we get a glimpse of their ceiling together.

4:00pm | Georgia at Arkansas

Few teams were in the national college football headlines as often this offseason as Georgia. Grad transfer QB Jamie Newman coming in from Wake Forest was big news because he would give the offense a different dynamic than in recent years. Then there were murmurs about USC’s deposed signal caller, JT Daniels, coming to Athens to be the heir apparent for 2021. But wait, there’s more. Daniels was granted an immediate eligibility waiver from the NCAA giving head coach Kirby Smart a decision to make. Just a few weeks ago, Jamie Newman made the decision himself and decided to opt out of the season. So, we presume Daniels will be the starter but as of this writing, Smart had not yet made an official announcement — whether it’s just pregame posturing or the staff having doubts about Daniels’ ACL recovery, we don’t truly know. (Editor’s note: As of Thursday, Daniels still has not been cleared to play. Looks like D’Wan Mathis, who overcame emergency surgery for a brain cyst last year, will get the start.) 

Both Newman and Daniels will be draft eligible in 2021 so it will be interesting to see how they stack up in the eyes of NFL scouts. Newman is a dual-threat while Daniels is a pocket passer who was very highly touted out of high school. If Daniels does win the job and decides to declare early I think he will get plenty of attention; it’s hard to say at this point what Newman opting out will do for his draft stock.. What I’m most interested in, despite what the ten sentence lead-in may have you believe, is who will be running the rock for Georgia.

Junior running back Zamir White is likely to get the biggest piece of the RBBC pie in 2020. As a high school recruit, White earned a near-perfect score from 247Sports (0.9957) and was a top player in the 2018 class. Unfortunately, White suffered ACL injuries to both knees in back-to-back years, effectively delaying the start of his highly anticipated college career. White had 78 carries in 2019, gaining 408 yards and scoring three times. He was the lead ballcarrier in the bowl game against Baylor and rushed for 92 yards and a score on 18 carries. White is big (6000/215, and maybe even larger) and runs with power and momentum. He only has two career receptions so I have no idea if he can be a receiver at the next level. There isn’t much of a sample size for White at this point so I’m trusting the recruiting hype and will check in again after a few games.  I always root for guys like White who had so much potential squashed by injury so I’m really hoping he can stay healthy.

Arkansas has their own draft eligible back to watch and his name is Rakeem Boyd. Boyd started his career at Texas A&M but ended up transferring down to JUCO for academic reasons. He returned to the SEC in 2018 with the Razorbacks and over two seasons has rushed for 1,867 yards and 10 TDs. I don’t recall watching Boyd play before, and haven’t seen the newer seasons of Last Chance U where he was profiled, so being introduced to his 2019 highlights was a delight. Boyd is a straight-ahead runner who passes the proverbial “eye test.” I came up with a fun description for him while watching: he’s a wallop-gallop runner. He can run over a tackler with sheer power and then outrun a safety to the endzone. Boyd also contributes in the passing game, making him a solid three down back.

Let’s hope this one stays close so that both White and Boyd log plenty of snaps. Another reason to hope for a close, low scoring, run heavy game: it’ll keep the clock ticking so we don’t miss the start of our next highlighted game…

7:00pm | Alabama at Missouri

Alabama is so chock full of NFL talent that I could devote this entire piece to their squad and still not cover everybody. I have previously written about RB Najee Harris so I’ll gloss over him today but that doesn’t mean I’m any less eager to watch him. There’s also LB Dylan Moses and CB Patrick Surtain who are slam dunk 2021 first rounders. But, in truth, I’ll be watching this one for the pass catchers. The Crimson Tide have had a steady stream of All-American receivers over the last decade and that spigot is still flowing. This year’s tandem, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, are both likely to be first round talents next year.

Smith was eligible for the 2020 draft but declined even after a huge season where he accrued 1,256 yards and 14 TDs on 68 catches. Smith is perhaps most known by casual fans for his game-winning score in the championship game of his freshman year (that’s the one where Tua Tagovailoa came in at halftime) but he’s made so many more eye-catching plays since then. DeVonta Smith is just a damn fun player to watch. He doesn’t truly break tackles, instead he accelerates around or through tacklers who can barely get their hands on him. Smith has the contact balance of an elite running back but also a smoothness that looks more like a track athlete than a football player. I haven’t studied him closely enough yet to know how well he runs routes but considering how polished the recent Bama receivers were in that department I’m sure it’s a strong suit of his as well. Let’s be thankful that Smith decided to return for his senior season because it means we get to watch one of the nation’s best dominate once again.

Waddle, a junior, was the third or fourth option much of the time during his first two years on campus. In those two years combined, Waddle has a 78-1,408-13 line, averaging 18.1 yards per catch. Waddle is fantastic in space. He has 4.35 speed, sharp change of direction and great vision. Alabama found ways to get him touches in the open field: punt returns, kick returns, screens, crossing patterns. The biggest concern when it comes to Waddle’s pro potential is his size. He’s listed at just 5100/182. In the last five draft classes, only seven receivers have weighed that or less at the combine and been drafted (many others went undrafted). Two of those, Marquise Brown and KJ Hamler, were Top 50 picks but the rest of the bunch were Day Three prospects. I think Waddle’s skillset and pedigree hews closer to Marquise Brown than the others in the cohort so I still think it’s likely that he’s a first rounder. Playmakers like Waddle simply don’t come along too often.

On the Mizzou offense we have two potential late-round prospects to keep an eye on in RB Larry Rountree and WR Damon Hazelton. Rountree feels like he’s been playing college football for more than a decade, [checks notes] but apparently his freshman season was in 2017 not 2007. As a four-year starter who has logged 38 career games, Rountree has racked up the counting stats: 537 carries, 2,748 yards, 26 TDs. If he has a halfway decent season in 2020 he’ll become the Tigers all-time second-leading rusher behind former dual-threat QB Brad Smith. From what I’ve seen of Rountree over the years I don’t recall seeing any elite traits but he’s good enough to get drafted and seems like the kind of back who will stick around on an NFL roster for years.

Hazelton is a well traveled receiver who comes to Columbia as a grade transfer from Virginia Tech (who had previously transferred from Ball State). He’s a 6030/215 big bodied guy who should profile as a late round red zone specialist. Twelve of his twenty career touchdowns came in the red zone. He’s consistently produced at his two previous stops and Tigers fans will hope that continues this year — a 50-700-6 line is easily within his reach.

Week 3 saw a rash of Covid-related cancellations and I think this is the game I would miss most from the Week 4 slate. The season is young but I have already watched a lot of mediocre to bad football and I’m (Mac) Jonesing for something great.

 

Notes: Heights listed are using a notation common among scouts where the first digit corresponds to the feet, the next two digits correspond to the inches and the fourth digit corresponds to the fraction, in eighths.  So, somebody measuring 5’11” and 3/8 would be 5113.  This is helpful when trying to sort players by height. Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  There are a lot of analysts out there who have a deeper depth of knowledge about certain players but I pride myself in a wide breadth of knowledge about many players.  When researching my articles I use a number of valuable resources. I would recommend bookmarking the below sites:

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, pro-football-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, mcubed.net, expandtheboxscore.com, washingtonpost.com
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2021 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, youtube.com
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, thedraftnetwork.com, nfl.com
  • NFL rosters, depth charts and contract info: ourlads.com, spotrac.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com, mockdraftable.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s, Athlon Sports
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft, Cover 3 College Football
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com
  • Odds & Gambling Stats: vegasinsider.com

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  He is a proud member of the Football Writers Association of America and the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.  Robert works as a certified park and recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper